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Originally published July 20, 2013 at 5:52 PM | Page modified July 20, 2013 at 5:53 PM

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GOP takes aim at defunding NASA asteroid mission

Republicans have taken dead aim at the asteroid-lassoing mission, while also pushing for sequester-level NASA spending and sharp cuts in the agency’s Earth Science funding, much of which goes to research on climate change.

The Washington Post

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Obama’s proposed asteroid-lassoing mission, a key piece of NASA’s plan for human spaceflight in the next decade, is trying to make it through the House of Representatives without getting blown to smithereens.

Republicans have taken dead aim at the mission, while also pushing for sequester-level NASA spending and sharp cuts in the agency’s Earth Science funding, much of which goes to research on climate change.

The House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, voting on party lines, passed a NASA authorization bill last week that would specifically bar the agency from moving forward with the Asteroid Redirect Mission (sometimes called the Asteroid Retrieval Mission) without first giving Congress more information about the plan.

“While the Obama administration’s asteroid retrieval mission (ARM) may sound out of this world, many questions still remain about whether this costly mission contributes to NASA’s long-term goals,” science committee Chairman Lamar Smith said in a statement released by his office.

The Democratic-controlled Senate looks more kindly on the mission and on NASA’s top-line budget more generally. Sens. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., and Bill Nelson, D-Fla., on Wednesday introduced legislation that would authorize $18.1 billion for NASA in fiscal 2014.

A separate appropriations bill making its way through the Senate would give NASA almost the same amount.

That compares with $17.7 billion in the president’s initial budget request, $16.8 billion in the House science committee bill and $16.6 billion in a House appropriations committee bill.

It now appears the Senate and House will have to resolve their significant budget differences in conference, probably after the August recess.

NASA’s asteroid initiative is in preliminary stages, and the capture mission isn’t even an official program yet.

The administration caught many people on Capitol Hill and in the space community by surprise when it included the proposal in its 2014 budget request earlier this year.

The plan has both robotic and human spaceflight components. First, an unmanned spacecraft would rendezvous with a small asteroid — roughly 20 to 30 feet in diameter — and swallow it with a tent-like contraption.

Then the spacecraft would nudge the rock back to an orbit around the moon. Astronauts would visit the captured asteroid in the new Orion spacecraft that is being developed in tandem with a new, heavy-lift rocket called the Space Launch System (SLS).

The administration offers multiple justifications for grabbing an asteroid and visiting it with astronauts. A key feature of the mission is that it would use hardware and propulsion technology already being built at significant cost.

In marketing the plan, the administration and NASA have leaned hard on the notion that this could help with planetary defense in the long term — boosting knowledge about asteroids and creating techniques for someday deflecting a killer rock.

But the plan has myriad uncertainties. NASA has yet to identify an asteroid that is sure to meet the requirements of the mission, such as size, spin, composition and speed relative to the Earth (the critical factor known as orbital dynamics).

It’s unclear how much this would cost. One outside study suggested $2.5 billion. NASA officials have said the robotic portion alone — latching onto the rock and hauling it to lunar orbit — would cost a billion dollars.

Smith, the House science committee chairman, says the mission won’t advance NASA’s long-term agenda.

“The proposed mission does not advance science, protect us against dangerous asteroids, or develop technologies necessary to explore deep space,” he said. “Congress and the American people simply need more information about why an asteroid retrieval mission is necessary before billions of taxpayer dollars are spent.”

NASA has officially expressed displeasure with the House legislation.

“These proposals would challenge NASA’s ability to ensure America’s preeminence in space exploration, technology, innovation and scientific discovery,” said David Weaver, the chief NASA spokesman.

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